Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 101 mins Director: Danny Boyle Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.
Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Rating: The Good – 70.1 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 131 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro
Oliver Stone has to work hard these days to make up for two decades of over-stylised not to mention confused pictures and such is the reason that this surprisingly slick crime feature fared poorly both critically as well as commercially. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Hitsch star as two wildly successful cannabis dealers on the California drug scene who come up against a ruthless cartel attempting to stake their claim north of the border. As the genius botanist, Taylor-Johnson is the brains of the operation while Hitsch’s former Navy SEAL is the enforcer and together they engage Salma Hayek’s drug lord in a bloody chess game as they attempt to secure the release of their hostage girlfriend Blake Lively. Factor in an utterly loathsome and genuinely scary Benicio Del Toro as Hayek’s right-hand man and you’re left with a colourfully twisted little thriller. Nested in Lively’s inevitably stylised visual narration, Stone allows the energetic if sometimes clunky script to play out in a relatively coherent manner as he shows the most directorial restraint he’s managed since Born on the Fourth of July. Make no mistake, it’s vibrantly shot and edited with flair but with enough discipline for the visual aesthetic to not only be enjoyed, but also be complementary of the well conceived set pieces. On the acting front, the leading threesome (as improbable as their relationship is) are satisfactory without shining and while much fun is had with an overwrought John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent, it never detracts from the the darker tones that Stone’s story paints. It all adds up to a rather satisfying crime thriller that should be judged on the merits of that genre’s most essential elements.
Steven Soderbergh and friends take a working holiday in Las Vegas for this entertaining reworking of the Rat Pack’s heist comedy. George Clooney fills Sinatra’s shoes as Danny Ocean, the recently paroled con-man who assembles a motley crew to take down Andy Garcia’s ruthless casino owner while simultaneously nabbing his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from his clutches. Brad Pitt is the Dean Martin sidekick while Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, and Elliot Gould among a couple of others complete the rest of the gang. A party-mode Soderbergh unleashes every bit of his directorial panache to craft the entire affair into an interminably slick feast for the eyes and ears – with a production budget to match (not content with taking over actual casinos, they even staged a title fight between Wladimir Klitshcko and Lennox Lewis). Playing the coolest versions of themselves, the cast cruise their way through the complicated and very well executed heist in a manner befitting the project’s ambitions with David Holmes’ repetitive but impossibly suave compositions providing the most complementary soundtrack imaginable. If it sounds, like a “can’t-miss” type of movie, allay your excitement somewhat because, though eminently fun, its lack of depth ensures that it’s a little cold. In the final analysis, Ocean’s Eleven is what you get when a bunch of talented movie guys spitball a movie concept around a poker table at 3 am. Lots of well conceived but ultimately stand alone moments in desperate need of some serious screenwriting to bind them together.
Rating: The Good – 83.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.
Rating: The Ugly – 66 Genre: Action Duration: 92 mins Director: Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen Stars: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze
A meticulous driver and all-action bad-ass in the form of Jason Statham transports illicit cargo around the French countryside but gets sucked into a people trafficking racket when he breaks his own rules and looks inside the package. Written and produced by Luc Besson but directed by Louis Leterrier, The Transporter still bears all the hallmarks of the legendary director’s most enjoyable work. An action comedy with a quirky energy that flirts with the laws of physics and slaps a couple of charming characters right in the centre. Statham delivers the goods in more ways than one with his usual mixture of suave wise-cracks and kickboxing acrobatics and Qi Shu makes for a worthy co-star as his endearing yet unintended sidekick. The plot is daft as a brush and you may even struggle to recall what the whole thing was about but with two strong leads, a considered screenplay, and more breathless car-chases, bullets and grenades, and kicks and punches than you can keep up with, The Transporter will race into the good graces of even the most cynical of movie fans.
Rating: The Good – 87.7 Genre: Crime Duration: 115 mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
A rare gem of a film that has remained relatively unacknowledged (when compared to more commercially successful Coen films), Miller’s Crossing stands alongside The Big Lebowski as the Coen brothers’ best film to date. Based loosely on an often forgotten film-noir, The Glass Key, the film is set during the prohibition era and follows kingmaker Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) in his attempts to play two rival gangs against the middle for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is a film that boasts perfection from all quarters from the casting, the acting, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, to the scoring. The cast is loaded with heavy hitters with Albert Finney and J.E. Freeman (as the terrifying Eddie Dane) doing particularly well alongside Gabriel Byrne who is in the form of his career. The directing is textbook as the brothers create a flawless synthesis of Dennis Gassner’s production design, Roger Deacons’ cinematography, and Carter Burwell’s score, all of which are stunning.
Of course, the standout strength of Miller’s Crossing is the dialogue which is not only the best example of Coen dialogue but perhaps the most powerful use of dialogue in modern film. The main thrust of the film’s quick and steady pace comes from the lyrical and relentless back and forth between the film’s characters and in typical noir fashion, this is usually between Tom and someone else. The story is the usual rubix cube of crosses and double-crosses which we have come to expect from the Coens but the payoff is perhaps more sharply realised here than in any of their other movies. In fact, the manner in which it all comes together is so sublime that Miller’s Crossing isn’t just one of the Coen’s best films, it’s also one of the best gangster noirs – period!
As technically innovative as 2001: A Space Odyssey (seriously!), Quentin Tarantino pulls out all the stops in the first volume of this relentlessly imaginative and convention twisting story of an assassin who mercilessly hunts down her former colleagues after awakening from the four year coma they put her in. Not content to toil in one of the many action sub-genres, Tarantino bridges at least four genres from Spaghetti Western to Japanese Anime, seamlessly interweaving the different styles and pushing the boundaries of their conventions to the point that the viewer finds his/herself witnessing a broader yet unique and singular genre of his own creation. With each passing scene, he squeezes, twists, and stretches traditional conventions to find new ways to lure the viewer into his frenetic world of pure vengeance. The result is the most dazzling synthesis of visuals, sound, and music since The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as Tarantino crafts one mind blowing scene after another. There’s a fight scene to rival anything from the Jidaigeki genre, a tracking shot to rival Goodfellas‘ “Copa shot”, a split screen shot to rival the best of De Palma, and an Anime scene as good as anything that genre has produced. On top of all that, the inspired casting gives us an utterly superb collection of performances lead by Uma Thurman’s scintillating portrayal of the Bride which finally gives us an action-heroine who talks and acts like a woman and not a man. Many have argued (including the director) that Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2 should have been one film, but given the sleekness of this masterpiece, the difference in tone between the two movies, and the sublime manner in which this first Volume comes to a close, there’s more than good reason to see it in two installments. Unmissable.
Rating: The Good – 63.3 Genre: Crime Duration: 104 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren
Steven Soderbergh’s film about a British gangster who travels to LA to kill the rich music producer who killed his daughter is edited in a supremely frustrating style akin to that which Soderbergh used in the key romantic scene in Out of Sight – when Clooney and Lopez meet in the hotel bar. Dialogue and shots are desynchronised as time is stretched out and condensed simultaneously. It works wonderfully in Out of Sight because it came at a transitory point in the movie, lasted only a couple of minutes, and was accompanied by David Holmes’ lovely score. In the Limey, all it does is irritate because it is employed recurrently throughout the movie and almost entirely for the first 20 minutes. On top of that, having Terrance Stamp stopping to translate his cockney wide boy slang to the various Americans is nauseating, unrealistic (surely he just wouldn’t use it to save time), and suggests that the inclusion of said slang was merely a gimmick.
Having said that, about 50 mins in this film rights itself and the story becomes more viewer friendly. The main characters are finally established and the remaining 50 mins is really entertaining. Stamp is decent as the grieving tough guy, Luis Guzmán is good support, Peter Fonda amuses, and that man Nicky Katt pops up (as he typically does) in an interesting if under-exploited cameo. If you’re in the mood for a revenge story with a twist this is worth sticking with.
Rating: The Good – 73 Genre: War, Action Duration: 134 mins Director: David Ayer Stars: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman
Writer-director David Ayer’s gnarly actioner follows a WWII US tank crew as they take the war with Germany into the inferno of the crumbling Third Reich. Led by their legendary commander “Wardaddy” (a well seasoned Brad Pitt), their adventures repeatedly morph between a muse of personal and social reflection to a high intensity, mechanised struggle for survival. The WWII action genre saw its heyday come and go in the 1960’s and 70’s and the self conscious stylising of recent cinema has struggled to match the story-telling power of yesteryear’s movies. Perhaps the genre benefited from being made by people who had lived and even fought through the war or at least grew up in its aftermath but whatever the reason, glossy effects and hollow moral messages being shoved down the audience’s throats does this species of film no favours.
Fury is certainly a modern movie, powered forward as it is by stirring score and moments of earnest soul-searching. The fortune cookie meaning of war is given much consideration as Ayer tentatively paints the objective and subjective pursuit of its endeavours in a mismatch of Christian duty and cliched nihilism. Any caricatures, and there are plenty, are drawn along those theme lines from Shia LaBeouf’s lay preacher to Joe Bernthal’s monosyllabic cutthroat. However, despite such tedious trappings of the modern war movie, Fury achieves and maintains substantial traction in the hearts and minds of the audience and rolls forward menacingly to a more than pleasing close. Pitt’s honed presence is certainly a determining factor in this as he sidesteps the cliches associated with the trope of hardened platoon leader but it’s primarily the grit of Ayer’s directing and the unpretentious bite of the overall story that allows this movie to survive its more wooden screenplay. Nothing is dwelled on. Like the guys in the tank, Ayer just gets on with it and, in doing so, succeeds in unfolding a simple canvas of coherent action sequences from beginning to end. A truly unerring momentum and ever darkening tone transforms his depiction of war-torn Germany into a nascent underworld of hellish mythology more akin to something Dante would dream up than a Hollywood director. It’s an emphatic triumph for Ayer and one that marks his full evolution from writer of substance to director of note. Steven Price’s relentless hum of a score will prompt much admiration too and the ensemble cast as a whole remains interesting and worthy of our support. Overall, Fury counts as a rare success for a modern WWII action-retrospective.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
Rating: The Good – 66.1 Genre: Crime Duration: 105 mins Director: Matthew Vaughn Stars: Daniel Craig, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Tom Hardy
A fair if slightly forced attempt to replicate Guy Ritchie’s magic formula for slick gangster action and sidewinding cockney slang. Daniel Craig stars as a yuppie drug dealer who, on the eve of his early retirement, gets dragged into dangerous negotiations between a kingpin and a gang of loudmouth wideboys. The plot is multi-tiered but coherent enough to withstand the numerous diversions that director Matthew Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly take in an effort to woo us with amusing anecdotes about London gangsters and their rules-of-the-street type lessons. Ultimately, however, that effort is why this Layer Cake collapses because whereas Ritchie sewed such vignettes seamlessly, adroitly, and effortlessly into the fabric of his plot, Vaughn labours to manufacture them. Producer of the former Mr. Madonna’s early films Lock Stock and Snatch, Vaughn (Mr Claudia Schiffer as it happens) stepped behind the camera to replace Ritchie when he became unavailable and so some consideration is warranted. Overambition is typical of first time directors but the job of stepping into Ritchie’s shoes is probably more to blame for the awkwardly gratuitous scenes of violence that Layer Cake is peppered with, not to mention the painfully predictable popular music they’re soundtracked to. That said, there’s a tidy cast on show to add a sheen of polish and give the more comedic and dramatic moments their legs. Craig is more than comfortable as the suave and erudite crook (foreshadowing his later 007 transformation), Colm Meaney is terrific as the old enforcer, and Michael Gambon pops up for his usual bit of scene stealing as the big bad boss at the top of the heap. Thus, even though it comes off a touch “Ritchie-lite” and we end up craving for the real thing, Layer Cake does just enough to become a movie in its own right and even offers decent entertainment as it goes.